Who’d be a local government finance director?

14 Dec 15

Despised by some, pitied by others, being a local authority finance director can sometimes be hard to bear in the current climate. What qualities are needed to see the job through?

It’s a tough job being a local authority director of finance or resources. The relentless cycle of setting a budget and then driving through implementation of the savings plan can be gruelling. There is huge uncertainty about how local government finance will work in the future and the only givens are continuing grant reductions, reducing real pay and the erosion of pension and retirement benefits. Who would want to do it?

You can take a lot of stick along the way as well. I was recently stopped in the street by an angry resident who told me, with convincing conviction, that I was the most hated man in the city. Well, thanks for that and Merry Christmas to you too!

It’s much more usual, though, to get sympathetic commiseration from the well-meaning. Comments like “I wouldn’t want your job for the world” or “Your life must be hell at the moment” are no doubt intended to make me feel better, but they usually have the opposite effect. Is this sympathy for the devil?

Even harder to bear in bad moments are the constant jibes about being pessimistic or miserable, or being told that you look like you’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. This is probably all the more galling because sometimes – just at the really low points – that is exactly how I feel. But not usually.

My senior management team and I recently pondered the key quality required to be effective as a council finance director. We came to the conclusion that it isn’t technical knowledge or interpersonal skills, it’s resilience.

In my case this resilience is anchored in three things. Firstly, despite everything, I still believe in what we do. I am trying to make a difference to Coventry and, mixed in with the difficult decisions, there are always exciting opportunities to innovate and improve the city.

For example, I have spent the last few months working with finance director colleagues across the West Midlands on our ‘devo deal’. This has the potential to give the regional economy the lift it so badly needs, to make that difference, and the point at which I think I am no longer making a difference is when it’s time to stop.

Secondly, there are some brilliant people in local government, councillors and officers, at all levels. Indeed, I am writing this on a train returning home from a peer review where I was part of a team along with six incredibly interesting and able people. I am sitting with a chief executive and a former mayor from whom I have learned a huge amount. I believe we helped the authority we were working with and we certainly managed to have some fun in the process.

I am also privileged to have a great team in my day job, who challenge and support me in equal measure. At our next meeting we will be joined by a group of colleagues from our new Aspiring Leaders Programme – aspiring for them, inspiring for me. The enjoyment I derive from human contact with talented people is a great antidote to the demands of the budget.

Finally, I am forced to admit that my resilience is partly based on sheer, old-fashioned bloody mindedness. Ultimately you often need to just grit your teeth and get through. I’m not the devil, I’m doing something I care about, and I don’t need sympathy. Just keep challenging me and make me laugh instead. Howard Devoto had it about right – have a listen to the opening lyrics of this.

  • Chris West
    Chris West

    executive director of resources at Coventry City Council and president of the Society of Municipal Treasurers.

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